Intercultural Saturday in Sofia

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by  Shebnem Niazi, YES 2013-2014, Bulgaria, hosted by World Link in Kalona, IA

On the 25th of February American Councils for International Education together with Youth for Understanding (YFU) Bulgaria organized a workshop called “Coloured Glasses”. YES alumni, exchange students from both organizations who are currently studying in Bulgaria, their host siblings and best friends gathered at the American council’s office in Sofia to explore and learn about values, cultural differences, stereotypes, non-verbal and verbal communication as well as identity.

The name of the workshop, “Coloured Glasses”, refers to the well-known analogy of the sunglasses which represents the cultural filters through which we observe and interpret reality. The objectives of the workshop were to introduce young people to the concepts of intercultural learning and to raise awareness on problems in society caused by intolerance. The aim of the initiative was achieved by using interactive non-formal education methods.

Intercultural learning has always played an essential role in countering stereotypical and prejudicial racist views. The intercultural element was clear even in the beginning when the workshop started by a fun name game. There were students who have either lived, came from or been exchange students in Denmark, Argentina, Germany, England, Bulgaria and the Unites States of America.

Together we brainstormed different stereotypes that we had of each other or of members of different nations, cultures, communities. It wasn’t difficult to come up with myriads of examples. We realized that when we make inferences about a new person or about some social event, we usually use our existing knowledge to reduce the uncertainty in the situation. The less we know about the object, the more we use stereotypical generalizations. We discussed how such generalizations might be harmful and might lead to errors in decision making that carry the potential for negative consequences, especially when it comes to legal, employment-based and interactive decision-making.

Through interactive group games we were introduced into the concept of identity. We came to the realization that there is a classic confusion between identity, culture, belonging and tradition, in which individual traits are generalised or linked to culture when they are actually much more difficult to define. By playing a “silent” card game we realized that to avoid such confusions we have to be able to communicate with one another effectively. Effective communication is not only verbal. The non-verbal elements, our gestures, body position, tone of speaking play a great role when we are approaching someone.

The YFU volunteers who carefully organized and lead the “Coloured Glasses” workshop provided a space to reflect, to work on individual attitudes and to bring about social change. The initiative reminded us that intercultural learning does not happen at the end of one activity or a week’s training. It is a process of change, which carries on once participants have left the centres and go back to their daily lives. There, they continue reflecting on the courses and on their experiences while interacting with others. And this is how the lessons learned are being (un)consciously implemented.

 

Fighting Bullying in Bosnia and Herzegovina

This post originally appeared on yesprograms.org

By Merima Muhic YES Bosnia and Herzegovina 2015-2016

My name is Merima Muhic, from Zivinice, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and I was an exchange student in 2015-2016. I was placed in Apex, North Carolina, where I attended the local high school. While in the U.S., I was inspired by how much my high school worked on bringing everyone together, as well as by how my own counselor actively held meetings with students to make sure they felt welcomed and safe at school. After I came back from the U.S., I started working on projects, eventually became a volunteer City Representative for YES alumni.

Then a bullying incident happened in my high school. It showed me how much of a problem bullying is and that it’s happening right in front of my eyes. I decided it was time to plan an anti-bullying workshop. At first I wanted it to be pretty basic: a workshop for ten people. Then, I decided that there is no point in doing something if it’s not going to make noise, so I reached out to another City Representative, Pavle Lakic (YES ’12), to get help on this project.

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Twenty high school students of all ages and backgrounds participated in the workshop, which took place on February 2, 2017. We created a safe space for everyone to speak and made it a conversational workshop, rather than having us do all of the talking. The presentation that was included in the workshop consisted of actual information and evidence about how bullying has been taking schools by storm, and highlighted the fact that our society isn’t doing a whole lot to promote anti-bullying and diversity policies. During the presentation, I played a video that was based on a real-life event, where an innocent life was lost due to constant bullying at school. It was obvious how much it affected every single person in the room; whether they were victims of bullying or bullies themselves.

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I wanted to expand the reach of this project so I made flyers with data on how many children are bullied, both in Bosnia and Herzegovina and around the world, and how little is being done to help them. The participants of the workshop helped me pass out these flyers and purple balloons (connecting the color purple to the purple ribbon for anti-bullying) to people on the streets.

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When I started planning this project, I hoped to reach out to at least 10 people and help at least one victim of bullying. I certainly didn’t expect that the story of our workshop would reach the local TV station and other high schools. I was happily surprised when other students started stopping me in the hallways to ask me when they could attend a workshop like this one. I already have two more workshops to do at other high schools, and I am working with the Alumni Coordinator for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Davor Tunjic (YES ‘13), on a proposal for making a short movie about bullying/anti-bullying and the workshop that started it all.

Baba Marta in Illinois – Teaching my community about Bulgarian traditions

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Today we got a letter from Mirela Minkova, YES student currently on the program. Here is how she celebrates Bulgarian Holiday and share about her country and customs to her American friends and her host community!
Dear American Councils,
Thank you for the great opportunity that you have given me – to be an exchange student. Since I got the chance to become an ambassador of my country, I have been determined to represent it in the best way that I can.
Today I felt extremely lucky to have the chance to share my culture with my American friends and my host family. March 1st is one of the most important Bulgarian holidays – Baba Marta (Grandma March). On this holiday we celebrate the coming of spring and the new beginning. We make a small ornament, called Martenitsa (made of white and red yarn), and we give it to friends and family as a gift, which will bring us heath, luck, and prosperity.
I was more than happy to make bracelets and necklaces from white and read yarn, and to teach my friend and family how to make them. Everyone from school, and from my community loved the tradition, and they were really interested. Bulgarians wear the ornament during the entire month of March and after we take it off, we tie it to a branch of a blossoming tree. I was surprised and pleased to hear that my American friends and family were more than willing to do the tradition with me. They are excited to wear the bracelets during the entire month. Then we all will find a beautiful tree to tie the Martenitsa on. They were thankful that I shared my culture, and they wanted to know more about Bulgarian customs. I will never forget the feeling when I saw how people were engaged, and were asking questions, memorizing each word that I say about the Baba Marta holiday. Everyone was excited to wear their Martenitsa, and they were taking pictures, telling other friends, and family.
I felt proud of myself, that I succeeded in teaching so many people, that I got the chance to share one of the symbols of my country. I feel great that I know how all my friends will remember Bulgaria and me with the beautiful red and white bracelets that we made together.
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YES Alumna Creates Hometown Book Exchange

By Emma Morgan, American Councils BiH Administrative Intern, YES Abroad Bosnia and Herzegovina ’14

After spending a year in Chaska, Minnesota as a YES student, Anela Tiro (PY 2015-16) knew how powerful it was to discover and engage with a different perspective. She wanted to bring that experience to people in her hometown of Mostar, BiH so she decided to create a public bookshelf at the American Corner in Mostar. Anela described the bookshelf as “a resource for personal and intellectual development” that she hoped would help her peers “discover new things in order to shape critical thinking and make this world a better place.”

The public bookshelf is open to everyone and operates under one simple principle: if you take a book from the bookshelf, you should also donate one in return. That way, the bookshelf is home to an ever-changing variety of literature that anyone, regardless of their background or personal finances, can access. Anela hopes that “the shelf might bring new ideas to others, and will spark a fire in someone’s deepest thoughts.”

And it appears to have done just that! Since its opening in August of 2016, the shelf has grown in popularity. American Corners staff in Mostar have remarked that most locals are surprised to find a bookshelf like this exists in their hometown. People have enthusiastically latched onto the bookshelf’s principle, with many people taking one book, but leaving 3 or 4. In fact, the bookshelf is so popular that at times it’s hard to find a place on the shelf to put the newly donated books! With this simple structure, Anela Tiro has created a whole new type of exchange in her own backyard.

Side by Side

YES Abroad Macedonia Mid-Year Orientation (January 16th and 17th, 2017 – Veles, Macedonia)

By Vesna Naumovska, YES Abroad Coordinator

It’s been 5 months that we have Jeremy, Kyra, Jaleh and Arshia in Macedonia. They were not happy at all that they are on a half way of their exchange, so instead of Mid-Year Orientation we called this Orientation “Trip to Veles”.

We organized everything for our trip on Monday, except the weather – we couldn’t control the weather and since it was snowing so much we couldn’t get on the morning train as planned so we took the later bus instead and we made it safely to Veles.

We had very successful Mid-Year Orientation in Hotel Gardenia. Reflecting on goals and expectations, setting up new goals for the next 5 months and seeing how much students have grown was very interesting and valuable for all.

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Mid-Year Orientation is so essential and students understood the value of it when they were done with all activities. We ended up the first day with relaxing activities enjoying the spa and wellness center at the hotel.

The following day the YES Abroad students met with Aleksandra Najdevska, YES Alumna from Veles. Thank you Aleksandra for spending time with us and sharing your exchange experience. It is always interesting to hear stories from YES Alumni.

My dear students, every day you experience something new. Time flies, so don’t waste time on worries and things that you cannot change or control. Enjoy the rest of your stay in Macedonia, explore and share and be the best youth Ambassadors that you can.

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Holiday Cheer At The American Corner in Banja Luka

By Lela Draganić, YES Programs Local Coordinator for Bosnia and Herzegovina

 

YES Abroad student Tana and Deputy Director of the Embassy Branch Office with kids at Thanksgiving

YES Abroad student Tana and Deputy Director of the Embassy Branch Office with kids at Thanksgiving

For three years now, the American Corner in Banja Luka has been a wonderful partner to American Councils in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They had provided us with the space to host our events, workshops and activities, and YES alumni and YES Abroad participants volunteer or come with their ideas and organize activities.

This year, we have celebrated every holiday at the Corner: Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Together with U.S. Embassy Banja Luka Branch Office staff, YES Abroad student Tana Korhonen and Cole Potter came up with fun games for elementary school kids and helped read famous American children’s stories on the day. With lots of laughter and squeals, the kids got to participate in a Mummy wrapping competition (toilet paper standing in for ancient band aids),  stuck their hands into ”Mystery Boxes” and touched eyeballs (peeled grapes) and raw brains (spaghetti). While our YES Abroad students were busy chasing after the youngsters, YES alumna Jelena Pilipović spoke to the media about the YES program and the work of American Councils in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

YES alumna Jelena Pilipović, PY 15/16, giving an interview during Halloween activities

YES alumna Jelena Pilipović, PY 15/16, giving an interview during Halloween activities

For Thanksgiving, YES Abroad student Tana helped Mrs. Sutton Meagher, the Deputy Director of the U.S. Embassy Branch Office, read stories to kindergarten and elementary school students. After this ”StoryTime” activity, the kids did some crafts and played games.

YES Abroad student Tana and Mrs. Sutton Meagher reading stories during Thanksgiving celebrations

YES Abroad student Tana and Mrs. Sutton Meagher reading stories during Thanksgiving celebrations

 

Two days after Christmas, during a time slot when the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant, Ellie Dupler, runs her English conversation class they screened the now staple Christmas movie, ”Elf”, to a crowd of some 25 people. Since it was announced we would be creating a proper holiday atmosphere and bring some additional cheer by serving hot chocolate, tea, coffee and sweets to the audience, both kids, young adults and adults were in attendance.

Thank you to the American Corner, Fulbright English Teaching Assistants and the U.S. Embassy Branch Office staff. We are looking forward to many more activities and holidays with you!

YES Abroad student Tana hosting the Christmas movie night at the Corner

YES Abroad student Tana hosting the Christmas movie night at the Corner

 

 

 

Thanksgiving in Macedonia

By Jeremy Slater, YES Abroad 2016-17, Macedonia (Skopje)

 

Wow! Time is flying by. As the remaining leaves wither and fall from the trees and the temperature continues to drop, I am reminded of my favorite season, fall. I love this season for many reasons; however, Thanksgiving is by far my most favorite part of autumn.

Thanksgiving is a special time for many American families. It is a time where nuclear and extended families rejoin, eat many flavorful dishes, and have fellowship. I was cautious to celebrate Thanksgiving this year, because being away from my family seemed like a very difficult thing to do. 2016 has been an uphill battle for my family, and celebrating a holiday where family is the center was causing me turmoil. Nonetheless, the wonderful friends I have made here helped this holiday become wonderful, extremely unique, and exciting.

My YES family, which included many entertaining alumni, all had Thanksgiving dinner on Wednesday (the night before Thanksgiving). The current YES American students were organized to bring our favorite holiday dishes, and they all turned out phenomenal!

 

I was enlisted to cut the turkey. Let’s just say, I am not the head-of-the-house just yet…

I was enlisted to cut the turkey. Let’s just say, I am not the head-of-the-house just yet…

Finished product!!!

Finished product!!!

 

Also, I was invited by my American friend from church for a Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday. I was very happy to share Thanksgiving with my church family, and I was eager to talk to the Macedonians there about what this holiday means for our families. I am so incredibly thankful for the people who have come into my life; this year I have so much to be thankful for. While at my church’s Thanksgiving dinner, I met three Syrian refugees, who are seeking asylum in Skopje. They have journeyed here from Aleppo and it was very, very interesting talking to them about their odyssey.

Finally, as I end this blog post, I want to thank my two families, my coordinators and directors in DC, my lovely friends back in the States and abroad, for their unending display of love, support, and kindness as this year progresses. Being abroad during the holidays is never going to be easy, but being surrounded by an immensity of tenderness has made it so much easier. I am still so in awe for how incredibly blessed I am and I hope that this year continues to get even better.

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YES Alumni Interview: ”The U.S. Showed Us How To VALUE And Be PROUD OF BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA”

by Lela Draganić, YES Programs Local Coordinator for Bosnia and Herzegovina

YES Alumni Đorđe Šukalo , Kristina Lukajić and Jelena Pilipović featured in ''BUKA Online Magazine''

YES Alumni Đorđe Šukalo , Kristina Lukajić and Jelena Pilipović featured in ”BUKA Online Magazine”

YES alumni Jelena Pilipović, Đorđe Šukalo and Kristina Lukajić recently gave an interview and spoke about their experiences in the United States and what they learned while on program.

The three young alumni are based in the city of Banja Luka, in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), and during a conversation with ”BUKA Online Magazine”, one of the most popular websites in the country, stated that BiH citizens have a lot to learn from Americans. Jelena, Kristina and Đorđe revealed how they hope their compatriots would learn how to ”be prouder and value more our own country, culture and heritage”, something they saw Americans do exceptionally well. They were also happy to see how united the civil society in the U.S. is, without any unnecessary divisions, and they would like to see Bosnia and Herzegovina follow that model.

All three alumni gave a valuable insight into what it looks like to go to an American high school, live with an American family and what everyday life looks in the United states. They had a chance to spend 10 months in the United States, on the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Program, which is fully funded by the U.S. Department of State. To find out more about the YES program and how you can participate, go to yesprograms.org

Testing for YES will start in Bosnia and Herzegovina in October and to find out more about the testing dates, requirements and locations, find us on Facebook: YESProgramBiH or check our website for more updates.

You can read Đorđe’s, Kristina’s and Jelena’s entire interview here

City Representatives work to make a positive impact on their communities

When YES Alumni Marija Krsteva wanted to volunteer more in her community and promote the opportunities that are available through YES Abroad, she decided to become a City Representative.

City Representatives are leaders within the YES Alumni community, and they work to coordinate and promote various projects within their groups. City Representatives take initiative to help others with their volunteer projects, and they also work to plan their own volunteer projects.

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Marija Krsteva

“I wanted to challenge the kids to apply (to YES Abroad) and show them that everything is possible through my example,” she said. “I was also thrilled about working with other people, sharing ideas and learning something new.

Once she became a City Representative, Krsteva began a project she called “Seeing Beyond Blindness.” She reached out to blind members of the area where she lived and spoke with them about their needs. After determining how she could best assist them, she worked to obtain a grant through American Councils to purchase 16 white canes for blind individuals who needed them.

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Angela Gekanovik

This is just one of the projects Krsteva has worked on during her time as a City Representative, and both she and YES Alumni City Coordinator Angela Gjekanovikj agree that the position has allowed them to make meaningful connections with those around them and in turn have a positive impact on the community.

Gjekanovikj most recently led a team of YES Abroad students and YES Alumni as they prepared for seven months to compete in the Model United Nations conference. She organized workshops to improve the team members’ resolution writing and public speaking skills. The team went on to represent one of the biggest countries in the competition, Russia, and two members of her team were selected to receive the “best  delegate award.”

In addition to leading the Model United Nations team, Gjekanovikj has facilitated entrepreneurship training during her time as a City Representative. She used NESTA training and tools from a British Councils to lead interactive activities to help the nine participants in attendance develop business ideas and create plans to execute future projects. The goal of the program was to support a diverse group of individuals to start their own businesses and in turn grow business in Macedonia.

Because of the various activities she has participated in while serving as a City Representative, Gjekanovikj said her time in the position has been “interesting and rewarding.” Krsteva also said she enjoys the position because she can help those in her community.

“I can help people directly and indirectly (as a City Representative,” Krsteva said. “For example, I can encourage these kids to apply and I have helped them indirectly, but maybe if I actually teach blind kids some English, I have helped them directly. I feel like I am alive, doing something right.”

 

YES Abroad Alumni 2015-2016 return to the United States

YES Abroad Macedonia 2015-2016 students ended their 10-month stay in Macedonia this weekend and arrived in the United States on Monday, June 13. Alumni Marina Godinez, Brendan Schultz, Charlie Bordeon, and Maxwell Myers touched down on Monday and then made their way to Washington, D.C. for a debrief orientation.

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The four spent Tuesday at the Department of State and the Macedonian Embassy discussing their experiences in Macedonia and talking about everything from Macedonian geography to Macedonian food. They then presented their capstone project as a group and talked more about their time abroad.

While in the capital, they met with YES Abroad Bosnia and Herzegovina 2015-2016 alumni to share their experiences and tour the city. The group saw the White House and the Washington Monument as well as other attractions in the area.

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The alumni then went to the airport to board separate planes to fly to their hometowns and reunite with their families and friends.